By Becky Rogan
In my work, I hear lots of personal stories and anecdotes regarding the loss of family and friends over differences of opinion. I have spoken with people who are grieving these losses and what I hear most often is: “How could we have disagreed differently and saved our relationship?” and “Why does it hurt so much?”
I suggest that we can choose to embrace the difficult conversations, discover what we have in common and rely on communication tools to get us through the tough spots.
In 2007 Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine, wrote a piece in the Los Angeles Times about his unique friendship with Rev. Jerry Falwell. As “archenemies,” Flynt said that their beliefs “travel[ed] in different solar systems.” In fact, Falwell had sued Flynt for libel in a case taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Flynt writes that their conversations would steer “...away from politics, but religion was within bounds. I knew what he was selling, and he knew what I was selling, and we found a way to communicate. I’ll never admire him for his views or opinions, but the ultimate result... was just as shocking to me as winning that famous Supreme Court case. We became friends.”
In practicing communication skills and learning to listen to understand, we often find what Flynt found — a way to communicate even when we have vastly different positions.
But how? What are the tools we need to help us communicate with each other?
The first tool is making time and establishing the rules for conversation. Generally, these are not easy conversations, so we need to set aside a period of time that will allow us to talk candidly about the problem. Rules give everyone an opportunity for input, increasing their buy-in to the conversation. They also set out expectations such as no screaming or name calling, no interruptions, no cellphones or no taking breaks if things become heated.
If behaviors break rules, participants remind each other of their agreement. If the behaviors continue, the conversation ends. At this point, the parties may need to decide if they wish to continue the conversation at a later time, or drop it.
The second tool is active listening. While one person is speaking, the other person is listening — not listening to respond, but listening to really hear what the other person is saying. When the speaker finishes, the listener repeats back what they heard. The listener asks, “Did I get it? Is there more?” — then the speaker has an opportunity to respond. This continues until the speaker says there isn’t any more and then the participants switch roles.
In using this process, speakers feel like they are truly being heard and listeners feel like they have a better understanding of what is going on. This encourages the participants to find mutually satisfying resolution to whatever the problem or issue might be.
The third tool is knowing when to walk away. Sometimes, no matter what we try or how much we wish for a different outcome, there is no way to have a civil conversation. This happens when people become too entrenched in their positions, feel it is more important to be right, or believe it is okay to say or do things that cross boundaries.
This does not necessarily mean we can never talk to them or be around them again.
Perhaps apologies or amends can be made, and the relationship can be healed. But no one should be verbally, emotionally or physically abused. When a person continues to break boundaries, it is okay to stop the conversation, walk away or end the relationship.
As our community works toward having more civil conversations, I hope these tools are useful. Keeping in mind that no one is perfect and we might sometimes forget a step, let us all make a commitment to civility — we just may develop an unlikely friendship like the one between Flynt and Falwell.
About the author: Rebecca Rogan is the chair of the Traverse City Human Rights Commission. She is also the executive director of Conflict Resolution Services. Rebecca believes real listening can change a relationship, a community, a world.